The Turkish president, who sees his country as a regional power, wants to lead to a political solution while forming a front with the leading Arab countries
November 06th, 12PM November 06th, 12PM
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken added Turkey to his crowded list of meetings in the Mideast at the last moment, landing in Ankara Sunday for a two-day visit.
He arrived a day after Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, recalled Turkey’s ambassador to Israel for “consultations.” The news was contained in a sharply worded statement that “Netanyahu can no longer be considered a partner, we have written him off.”
A more detailed explanation came in a speech at the Black Sea province of Rize. “We won’t leave our brothers in Gaza alone,” Erdogan said. “It is our historical responsibility to call out the crimes of those supporting this immoral, unscrupulous, despicable massacre [by Israel].” He added that Turkey planned to “bring Israel’s crimes” before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
However, the Israel-Turkish diplomatic honeymoon that began 15 months ago isn’t entirely over. Erdogan said that his foreign minister, Hakan Fidan, and İbrahim Kalin, the head of intelligence, have had discussions with people in Israel and that breaking off diplomatic relations is not on the agenda because, as he put it, “there is no such thing as severing relations, especially not in relations between countries.”
Erdogan is correct about that. Jordan, Bahrain and Bolivia have recalled their ambassadors but have not announced their severing relations with Israel.
Even the two times that Egypt recalled its ambassador to Tel Aviv – during the First Lebanon War and during the Second Intifada – working relations continued as usual, including security cooperation. Israel’s commercial and intelligence ties were maintained during the years relations were frosty and neither country posted an ambassador with the other.
Blinken did not come to Turkey to repair relations between Erdogan and Netanyahu. It appears that after meeting in Amman on Saturday with the foreign ministers of five leading Arab powers, he felt the need to preserve relations with Erdogan, who has been sidelined (mainly by the U.S.) from the intensive diplomacy surrounding the Gaza war now underway.
But the visit is also an opportunity to address some issues unrelated to the war, such as Sweden’s joining NATO and Turkey’s purchase of F-16 fighter jets, a deal that is being held up in Congress.
Erdogan’s support for the Palestinians is nothing new. The financial aid, political support and freedom of movement he had given Hamas leaders (including permission to set up businesses to raise funds for the organization and invest its funds) had long been a bone of contention between Israel and Turkey.
Even after bilateral relations were fully restored, Erdgoan maintained good personal ties with Hamas leaders, including Ismail Haniyeh and Saleh al-Arouri, both of whom lived in Turkey until they were politely asked to move on with several other of the movement’s officials.
With the outbreak of the war in Gaza, Turkey offered to mediate a deal to free hostages and even had discussions with Israel and Hamas, side by side with its ally, Qatar.
Fidan, Turkey’s foreign minister, who had previously headed the country’s intelligence agency, has close ties with the heads of the Mossad. He regards Yossi Cohen, the Mossad’s previous director, as a personal friend. Kalin, who was a senior adviser to Erdogan and succeeded Fidan to the top intelligence post, likewise maintains close ties with his Israeli counterparts.
But, according to Israel sources, Turkey’s joining the mediation effort was scuttled when it became clear that Hamas had been offended by the Turkish president’s change of attitude toward the organization and preferred the Qataris and Egyptians over the Turks.
“Turkey didn’t have a lot to offer even after Erdogan and Fidan spoke personally with Haniyeh and sought to learn what Hamas was seeking in exchange for freeing hostages. Turkey realized that without offering something substantial in return – like a ceasefire, a promise not to kill Hamas leaders and allowing fuel into Gaza, demands that Israel would reject outright – there was nothing to discuss,” a Turkish source told Haaretz.
However, Turkey does not see itself as just a possible mediator or as one whose “historic role is to stand by its brothers in Gaza. Turkey regards itself as a regional power whose standing demands that it involve itself in any and all disputes occurring in the Middle East or the Caucuses, some of whose countries belong to the “Turkish community of nations” over which Turkey seeks to extend its historical patronage.
This worldview usually includes a geopolitical map of its own making that it is seeking to make into a reality. Naturally, it sees itself as the country that will control the map. Thus, Ankara has played a role in the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region; in Syria, where Turkey has occupied a northern strip of the country; and in Libya, where it allied with Qatar, it has supported the Tripoli government’s war with the Libyan National Army, led by General Khalifa Haftar.
Its support of the Tripoli government yielded Turkey economic benefits after the two countries signed an agreement to mark the maritime borders. Cutting across the Mediterranean, the map they agreed on threatened to interfere with Egyptian and Israeli gas exports to Europe.
Further afield, Turkey has emerged as a key player in the war in Ukraine. Turkey is demanding that the United Nations Security Council be taken out of the hands of the “big five” powers, which hold veto power. Turkey also holds the key to the expansion of NATO (Erdogan belatedly approved Swedish membership but is delaying the approval by the Turkish parliament).
Vis a vis the war in Gaza, Turkey has been preparing for “the day after” and what role it will play. About two weeks after the fighting began, Fidan presented a political plan based on the two-state solution and the deployment of an international force in Gaza and several countries serving as guarantors for a future diplomatic agreement.
Under this “prescription,” Turkey would be one of the guarantors for the Palestinian side, with other countries serving the same role on the Israeli side. Fidan did not say who these “other” guarantors would be, but he expects the United States to be one of the principal ones.
There is no point in talking about how feasible the Turkish idea is, let alone whether it could ever be implemented, at a time when the sides cannot even agree on “humanitarian pauses.” But the fact that it even raised the idea right now reveals quite a bit about Turkish ambition and its perception of itself as an equal to the U.S.
However, it is not only the vision that guides Turkey. Ankara is reading the regional map carefully. Thus, it has sought to ally with the leading Arab world’s leading powers, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, to create a front against an American policy that still unreservedly supports Israel. Turkey understands that it is these countries, not Turkey itself, that may well dictate the rules of the game. It wants to be there.
Turkey, which was the first country to deliver by air humanitarian aid via the airport in El-Arish, promised on Sunday to take 1,000 Palestinian cancer patients who were taken out of Gaza to Egypt. Turkish media say that Blinken’s visit to Ankara will deal, among other things, with the question of the “day after,” in recognition of Turkey’s critical role.
Erdogan himself was quick to declare that “Gaza must be part of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.” This is how Erdogan has inserted himself into future developments, even if for now the U.S. (not to mention Israel) has no idea what the day after will look like.